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A Revolutionary Among the Stars

Image Select/Art Resource
Nicolaus Copernicus with his model of the heliocentric universe

Dava Sobel has carved a niche for herself as a writer who employs narrative and biography to present archaic and complicated theories in an engaging and accessible manner. After making her name as an award-winning science reporter for The New York Times, she published Longitude, her first book in this style, in 1995. In it she described the long quest of the eighteenth-century British clockmaker John Harrison to build the perfect chronometer, and his fight to claim the national prize for measuring longitude, which had so far baffled navigators. The bold subtitle immediately proclaimed Sobel’s approach, as if in deliberate defiance of academic modesty or complexity: “The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time.”

A similar use of a popular, but in this case more intimate, narrative genre marked Galileo’s Daughter, in 1999, announced as “A Drama of Science, Faith and Love.” Here Sobel skillfully used the relationship between the astronomer and his daughter, the nun Maria Celeste, to give an emotional and personal context to the controversies that surrounded his astronomical work. Six years later came The Planets, in which Sobel mixed recent scientific data with several different kinds of storytelling: myth, astrology, folk tales, and science fiction. What, one asks, would she do with Copernicus?

As her subtitle suggests, this time Sobel centers on the idea of revolution, astronomical and earthly. She dramatizes challenges to orthodoxy, not only in the overturning of prevailing views of the cosmos in Copernicus’s epoch-making De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) of 1543, but in the turmoil of religious debate, European politics and conflicts, and the personal and sexual lives of Copernicus and his contemporaries. In so doing, she presents Europe in the early sixteenth century as a world alight with ideas yet held back by vested interests and self-regarding, oppressive institutions.

At its heart, her book is literally a drama. It began, she explains, with her writing the two-act play that forms its centerpiece, an imaginative reconstruction of the relationship between the aging Copernicus and his young devotee Georg Joachim Rheticus, who traveled five hundred miles from Wittenberg in Saxony to northern Poland to visit the master, and who persuaded him, eventually, to publish his great work. As Sobel admits, “No one knows what Rheticus said to change Copernicus’s mind about going public.” Her play, drawing on letters and treatises, is a response to this dilemma. It was originally intended to stand alone—and has indeed been performed several times—but it appears here embedded within a more conventional, documented narrative.

The mixture of genres makes A More Perfect Heaven an interesting experiment, a triptych where the action springs to life in the central section, preceded by an account of the generation of De revolutionibus, and followed by an equally interesting story of its aftermath and influence. Early in the book, establishing a license in the reader’s mind, as it were, for the shift toward fiction, she quotes a vivid passage about Copernicus’s journey to Italy from John Banville’s 1976 novel Doctor Copernicus, the first in the trilogy that continued with Kepler and The Newton Letter.

If her new book lacks the heat of the disputes that fired Longitude or the urgent, intimate quality of Galileo’s Daughter, it remains full of tension, touching in its presentation of Copernicus’s persistence, and captivating in the way it balances visionary theoretical genius with emotional commitments and practical abilities.

One of its most interesting aspects is the blend and clash of languages. The eloquent epigraphs from Copernicus and his peers and from the Bible strongly convey the tone and the arguments of the day. The elegant outline of contemporary ideas about the elements and the mechanics of the cosmos now seems as curious as a fairy tale: the four mutable elements—earth, air, water, and fire—and the fifth essence, ether, the inviolate, enduring substance that filled the heavens; the belief that earthly objects moved along straight paths to find their place in the world order, while heavenly bodies nestled in celestial spheres, spinning in perfect circles, with the earth at the center.

This geocentric model derived from Aristotle, refined by Ptolemy in the second century AD: one of Copernicus’s favorite books in his youth was the Epitome of Ptolemy’s Almagest written by Johannes Regiomontanus in the 1460s. Beyond, and interwoven with the mathematics of astronomy, lies yet another language, that of astrology, conjured here by the horoscopes of Copernicus and Rheticus, and by the latter’s fervent belief that more accurate calculations could prepare the way for “momentous predictions,” revealing the future fate of states and empires.

The book is striking, too, in its depiction of the mobility of ideas and the circulation of manuscripts in an age when publishing was in its infancy and travel was hazardous and slow. Geography had much significance. Before moving to Kraków, then the capital of the Polish kingdom, Copernicus’s family came from the village of Koperniki, in the copper-mining district of Silesia in southern Poland. In the mid-fifteenth century, his father settled in the northern town of Torun, trading in copper and marrying a local woman. Subtly Sobel lets us see her own questing travels, as she describes their tall brick house, now a museum:

From the double doors under the house’s pointed arch, their two boys, Andrei and Niklas, could walk to classes at the parish church of St. John’s Church, or down to the family warehouse near the wide river, the Vistula, that coursed from Krakow past Warsaw through Torun, carrying the flow of commerce to Danzig on the Baltic Sea.

The Vistula, with its busy traffic, flowed through Copernicus’s life. As an adult, wistfully comparing his situation to that of Ptolemy, sky-watching in cloudless Egypt, he wrote, “The Nile, so they say, does not exhale such misty vapors as those we get from the Vistula.”

After his father died when Copernicus was ten, the four children came under the wing of their wealthy maternal uncle, Lukasz Watzenrode, later bishop of Varmia, the diocese of the region. One sister became a Cistercian nun, the other married a businessman, and the two boys, destined for the church, were sent to university in Kraków. Copernicus was already absorbed by astronomy, and Kraków was well known for its astronomical-mathematical school: it would have been interesting to know more about his studies here, and his wide reading of humanist texts in Poland and in Italy, as well as his debt—which Sobel acknowledges—to the calculations made by Islamic astronomers.

When he moved on to study canon law at Bologna in 1496—his income supplemented by a post as a canon at Varmia, obtained for him by his uncle—he lodged with the famous professor Domenico Maria Novara, assisting his observations of the moon and the brilliant star Aldebaran. In Rome, in the jubilee year of 1500, he recorded a partial lunar eclipse. After a short spell back in Frauenburg, where Varmia cathedral stood on its hilltop overlooking the Vistula Bay and the Baltic, Copernicus traveled south to Italy again, this time to study medicine at Padua, acquiring skills that would later fit him to become physician to the chapter and monks of the cathedral.

In 1503, having taken his doctor’s degree, Copernicus returned to Poland, where his passion for astronomy ran alongside more mundane work. Working for his uncle the bishop as secretary and physician, he continued his observations in private, taking notes, for example, of the Great Conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in 1504 and the lunar eclipse of June 1509. His first work, however, dedicated to his uncle, was a translation from Greek into Latin of selected letters by the Constantinople moralist Theophylactus Simocatta, which he found in the cathedral library. (Sobel suggests that this was, in fact, an exercise in improving his Greek, so that he could study the works and calendars of Greek astronomers.) A year later Copernicus moved out of the Bishop’s Palace, two years before Bishop Watzenrode died. He had been working on the planetary reversals and movements that had led Ptolemy to propose a complex system of subsidiary spheres, and his move from the palace coincided with his writing of a short summary, the Brief Sketch, or Commentariolus, describing the new theory he had developed to correct Ptolemy’s violation of the basic axiom that “all planetary motions must be circular and uniform.” In Sobel’s version:

“All spheres surround the Sun as though it were in the middle of them and therefore the center of the universe is near the Sun,” he wrote. “What appears to us as motions of the Sun arise not from its motion but from the motion of the Earth and our sphere, with which we revolve about the Sun like any other planet.”

With a wave of his hand, he had made the earth a planet and set it spinning.

Indeed, Copernicus noted three earthly revolutions: around the sun every year; around its own center each day, causing sunrise and sunset; and a slight, but perpetual, gyration of the poles, accounting for the changing direction of the earth’s axis.

Copernicus refined his ideas over subsequent decades, building a large, paved patio—his “pavimentum”—on which to stand his astronomical instruments, his triquetrum, quadrant, and armillary sphere. He pursued his great labor, the revision of Ptolemy’s Almagest, alongside his official duties as chancellor, supervising financial transactions on behalf of the cathedral chapter, whose politicking and bickering often reads like a passage from one of Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, full of clerical jealousy and ambition.

And around the chapter’s petty fights swirled larger conflicts. The region was constantly subject to the ravages of the Teutonic Knights, the military order, to which many leading German and Baltic families belonged, which had evolved in the centuries after the Crusades into a powerful force, ruling over spreading territories in northern Germany and Poland. In November 1516, when Copernicus was sent to administer the cathedral’s lands in the south of the region, the Knights were threatening new attacks under their leader Albrecht.

In these difficult conditions Copernicus supervised land exchanges among the hard-pressed peasants, a task graphically illustrated by Sobel’s interposing of quotations from his ledger between details of his astronomical research. The interweaving of roles cogently demonstrates the nature of Copernicus’s intellect and temperament, showing how he applied his mind in a similar way to both earthly and heavenly problems, moving from the meticulous collection of data through rigorous analysis to imaginative and often unconventional solutions. As an astronomer he contributed suggestions to Pope Leo X’s campaign to adjust the Julian calendar; as an administrator, in his Meditata of 1517 he presented a practical—and influential—brief for reforming the coinage; later, in his Bread Tariff of 1531, he neatly proposed regulating the weight of the peasant’s daily loaf according to the price of grain.

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